About the Author: Jason P. is a Dappered devotee, having curated the majority of his wardrobe through the site. He is an enthusiast of wool sweaters, chino pants, and affordable automatic watches. In his free time, you can find him at his boxing gym or antiquing with his wife.
Bourbon is the working man’s liquor, and once was long suffering as the unsung hero. But tides have turned for this dram, as over the past decade, it has basked in the limelight. So much so, that a $30-$40 bottle won “best in show, whisky” at the San Francisco Spirits Competition this year. Not a small feat.
What makes bourbon such a great buy? Corn, America’s treasure. By definition, bourbon whisky doesn’t need to be made in Kentucky, but it does have to contain a mash bill of a minimum 51% corn. More on that in a bit. Corn has been running $4-$6 a bushel for years now. This helps to keep costs low and prices stable for most whiskeys, especially bourbon. What separates bourbon from other whisky? In additional to the required 51% corn minimum, bourbon must enter the barrel no higher than 125 proof (divide by 2 to get the alcohol percentage), and bottled at no lower than 80 proof.
High-end bourbons are trending, but I lean toward bottles in the $30-$50 range. For the price, they simply cannot be beat. The flavor profiles are far more complex than anything else in the price range in liquor, and offer unrivaled variety. Wheated bourbons provide a sweeter touch, while rye-forward drams offer a bold spice – perfect for summer nights around a fire pit in the backyard. Unless you’re a city dweller, in which case the rye will set you apart at the rail from other customers ordering with the bar keep.
Speaking of rye – back to that mash bill. What is a mash bill? It’s the mixture of grains that make up the “bill,” or list of ingredients to create the bourbon. As I mentioned, corn is the primary ingredient at 51%, and a bourbon’s flavor profile can be influenced in four primary ways:
- Percentage of rye in the mash bill. A higher rye content will create a spicier bourbon. Below, I’ll give you my favorite value rye bourbon.
- Percentage of wheat in the mash bill. A higher wheat content, or a “wheated bourbon,” creates a sweeter flavor. Like the rye, below is my favorite wheated budget bourbon.
- Barrel quality. Legally, for a whisky to be “bourbon,” it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. The quality of these barrels- namely, the wood itself- heavily influences the final flavor profile of the bourbon.
- Location of the barrel within the storehouse. Once barreled, the bourbon is placed in a storehouse for aging. Temperature – another key influence of the final product – varies within a storehouse. Thus, a bourbon stored in one corner may produce a significantly different result from a bourbon stored in another far corner of the storehouse, even if they were aged in extremely similar barrels.
Put all of the above together, and you have a type of liquor that has incredible variety and uniqueness from brand to brand, and bottle to bottle, with plentiful options under $40. My picks below are usually readily available nationwide and under $40. The Henry McKenna 10-year single barrel mentioned in the first paragraph will not make an appearance here, as it is incredibly difficult to find (in my experience). If you do happen upon a stash at your local shop, buy them. All of them. Prices as quoted were found at my local store in the Northeast. Without further ado, the picks.
The Wheated Bourbon: Maker’s 46 – $37
Here’s the issue with wheated bourbons: They can be super difficult to find, and when you locate a bottle, expect to pay royally. Van Winkle. Weller. Buffalo Trace Antique. Not so with this one. A variety of the common Maker’s Mark, this wheated version provides a beautiful touch of sweetness for a fraction of the price. I tasted vanilla and caramel, but also a bit of spiced wood. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as “spiced wood,” but imagine how a piece of charred oak sprinkled with cinnamon and clove might smell. For me, the combination of vanilla and caramel at the front and the spiced wood was complex but readily identifiable. This isn’t a bourbon you have to think about, and I appreciate it. 94 proof, so it packs a good punch.
The Rye: Bulleit 95 Rye – $33
SPICE SPICE AND MORE SPICE. This is a heavy hitter, at a back of the lineup price. 90 proof, but can taste like approximately one-billion proof if you’re new to rye bourbons. This pour is a complete departure from the Maker’s 46 above. High spice, with some toasted notes as well. As usual, I recommend trying this neat on your first go-round to see if you can pick out some subtle sugar notes.
Correction: Technically, this is not a bourbon, since there is no corn in the mashbill. It contains 95% rye, hence the “95 rye” moniker. For a rye-heavy bourbon, check out the”Regular” Bulleit Bourbon (28% rye), or the lovely Four Roses Single Barrel for a more complex spicy flavor. The combination of the high rye percentage and single barrel aging makes the Four Roses a delight, but slightly more expensive and usually teeters above $40.
The Old Standby: Buffalo Trace – $32
Speaking of, this is my go-to. This one is all about balance. The vanilla, caramel, spice, honey, pepper, and a bit of brightness – maybe citrus? No single flavor stands out, but all meld together in a very easy-drinking bourbon. If you don’t know what bourbon to start with, or you’re overwhelmed with the ever-growing selection on shelves, you can never go wrong with the standard Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon.
The Boldest: Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage – $30
Single Barrel bourbon under $40 is hard to find. But this right here? Under $30 after tax, and widely available. A staple on my bar cart at home. A single barrel bourbon contains the contents of one barrel, versus a blend of bourbons from multiple barrels. The use of a single barrel allows a fuller expression of the barrel aging process to come through the bourbon, and often produces deeper, bolder, more complex flavor profiles. I call this “true” bourbon. That isn’t to say blends are bad (on the contrary) or untrue, whatever that might mean. But, single barrels offer a taste of THAT bourbon with THAT barrel. A unique experience from bottle to bottle, as the barrel may change from year to year and make subtle changes to the flavor.
The Most Bang For Your Buck Budget Bourbon: Evan Williams Black Label – $14
Evan Williams black label gets a bad rep for being cheap hooch, but Heaven Hill Distillery has given this bottom-shelf bourbon some love. Maybe it’s just me, but this black label hits way above its weight. No age statement available, but it’s rumored to be around 5-7 years. A great selection for making Old Fashioned’s and Manhattans if you prefer to save your other bourbons to drink straight.
Are you a bourbon fan? If so, let me know your go-to bottle in the forums.